Thursday, April 16, 2015

Iran

One of the more memorable occasions I’ve had in Washington was time spent with one of the American diplomats taken hostage by the Iranians in 1979. Now in his nineties, Bruce Laingen was the Chargé d’Affaires for our embassy in Iran. He, along with 51 others, was held for 444 days in a maddening and humiliating spectacle. This event has had profound impact on our foreign policy considerations for the past 35 years.

We are near another critical moment with Iran. As Iran pursues a path to nuclear weapons, the United States and the international community of responsible nations must form an effective strategy to posit a realistic chance of permanently stopping an Iranian march to the bomb. The consequences are dire. An Iranian weapon is likely to spark a new nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East. A proxy terror group could be given the weapon. No one would be safe.

Understanding the current dynamics requires forward thinking as well as a look back at recent history to better understand present circumstances.

During the 1950s, American concern over the Middle East tilt toward communist influence resulted in the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of an elected Iranian leader and the restoration of the Shah, a king-like figure who was considered a U.S. ally. During this time, cooperation existed between our two countries—even while the Shah became more distant from his people. The U.S. also helped Iran acquire some nuclear technology. But then the Iranian Revolution triggered the Iran hostage crisis and a theocratic governing structure.

Life in Iran has many contradictions. A look more deeply shows that the Persian people have a deep sense of justice and a strong national pride. Their prior constitution of 1907 was influenced by the constitutions of Belgium and the Netherlands. Iranians cherish their history and cultivate a sophisticated level of learning. The population is diverse and a certain affinity for America exists. Many Americans of Iranian background flourish in our country and connect regularly with relatives in Iran. Many want peace, not humiliation and war. Many want Iran to join the international community of responsible nations. Most want to unleash the potential of their economy, isolated by an autocratic rule that has limited their ability to prosper on the global stage.

Make no mistake, however, in just looking at niceties. A few years ago, the regime violently repressed a new political movement called the Green Revolution. Religious minorities have limited rights. The peaceful Baha’i faith is under severe persecution. "Death to America" is a popular political rallying cry. Iran's leaders continue to hold several U.S. citizens captive, support terrorist groups, and were behind the bombing of our Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing over 200 Marines and service personnel.

The U.S., along with Britain, Russia, France, Germany, and China are now negotiating with Iran over the future of its nuclear program. Iran is motivated for several reasons. First, the U.S. has leveled economic sanctions against the Iranian regime—sanctions that Congress has strengthened to great effect. Second, there is an international coalition of negotiating partners whose cooperation puts added pressure on Iran. Third, there is new leadership, sophisticated to the ways of the West, probing a different way forward for the country. Fourth, the collapse of oil prices has further harmed the Iranian economy. Fifth, the next generation is creating some inward pressures for reform.

As Iran develops the capacity to make nuclear materials, the need for a genuine solution is ever more urgent. In a perfect world, Iran's nuclear program would be completely eliminated. However, that outcome is unlikely to be fully achieved under current circumstances. Here are the options: First, we could continue on our present course of sanctions, threats, and impotent discourse. Second, a limited agreement could be reached that, if verifiable, constrains Iran’s steady movement toward nuclear weapons capacity. Third, we and others can press for stronger concessions, but this assumes that the international coalition does not fray—and considering that the Chinese and Russians are not reliable, that’s a big assumption. The fourth option is military strikes.

All these options have significant downsides and involve risks, including the risk that Iran will develop weapons outside the parameters of any signed agreement. The question before the U.S. and our negotiating partners is whether the present framework sufficiently halts the avenues for developing a bomb, giving Iran space to walk back from the nuclear precipice. Now we are hearing that Iran’s Supreme Leader is questioning the U.S. assessment of the framework agreement, possibly seeking to derail further discussion. We will know more as we approach the June 30 deadline for a final agreement.

The consequences of failure are many, one of which is that Sunni Arab nations will likely pursue nuclear weapon programs. When I pressed the former Egyptian President regarding his country's potential for nuclear weapons development, he said: “We have to defend ourselves.” Saudi Arabia and Turkey are likely to follow course. Any agreement with the Iranians must be robust enough to hold regional confidence.

In the coming months, Congress will debate the agreement. I hope the debate will be based upon the most relevant facts and measured by realistic assumptions. I'll give one guarantee: the outcome will not be perfect. But it is important to strive for a credible, verifiable agreement that effectively inhibits Iran’s nuclear breakout, improving the prospects for security for ourselves and our friends.

About the Author:

JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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